The motto of the town of Surf City is “big enough to be competitive, small enough to be happy.” Mayor Zander Guy, Jr. says his town “possesses all of the aspects of a friendly, active community. We take great pride in our safe and family-friendly environment.” Surf City prides itself on being a “commercial hub… where you will find restaurants, gift shops, grocery stores, churches, a fishing pier, tackle shops, surf shops and kayaking shops. I invite you to visit any of our local merchants and find out why Surf City is such a wonderful community.” But Mayor Guy’s been keeping company with some merchants who are not local, and who eat local merchants for their lunch: Wal-Mart. The Jacksonville Daily News revealed this week that a commercial developer from Indianapolis has met in private with the Surf City planning department several times regarding property for a Wal-Mart in Surf City. According to the Mayor, the developer has been in “constant contact” with the town’s planning department over the past “couple of months.” The developer is looking for 150 acres for a Wal-Mart, which is about five times bigger than a Wal-Mart parcel needs to be. “We don’t have anything concrete at this time,” the Mayor said, probably not aware of the pun. But the developer has very concrete plans, and has been inquiring about water and sewer requests, including a request for 50,000 gallons of sewage per day. The Mayor casually added, “They have also presented the planning department with preliminary site plans.” In other words, without the public knowing a thing about it, town staff have been spending hours of time with these developers. The Mayor would only say he “believes” the land Wal-Mart wants is currently undeveloped, and across from a Lowe’s Home Improvement store at the corner of Routes 17 and 210. One Plannning Board member interviewed by the Daily News was careful to note that he has not sat in on any of the meetings with the developer — which would have been illegal. Even though Planning Board member Barry Newsome is supposed to maintain neutrality in the matter which might come before his board, he told the newspaper that the project location seemed fine to him. “I do not have a problem with the location. Historically speaking, you often see a Wal-Mart by a Lowe’s or other large retail business,” he told the Daily News. He has biased himself already, and should step down when the matter comes before his board.
Whispers about a Wal-Mart “going to Surf City” have been circulating for several years, since the Lowe’s store was approved. There are five Wal-Mart supercenters within 31 miles of Surf City, but the closest one is 23 miles away in Wilmington, North Carolina. Surf City itself has less than 1,900 people. The entire population of Pender County is around 50,000 people — but it covers 871 square miles. A Wal-Mart supercenter needs at least 50,000 people to prosper, but a store in Surf City would be lucky to attract half that number of shoppers. Surf City’s Mayor says “we pride ourselves on looking towards the future and ensuring that Surf City remains one of the best places to live, work and play… We are firm believers in protecting the reasons that brought all of us to Surf City in the first place.” Yet this tiny town is being flooded with suburban sprawl. The towns does not have a fully focused economic development plan. Town officials say they want to create commercial districts “that promote continued prosperity for our current and future business owners while promoting our family oriented community.” The town’s strategic plan says Surf City should “discourage, through zoning and code enforcement, low value development and the deterioration of existing properties.” Wal-Mart is such a “low value” development, because it largely takes its sales from the very merchants that Surf City says it wants to protect, and will cause some stores to close. The town also brags that it is now a “Cool City” because it joined a nationwide program with the Sierra Club to “advance climate protection at the local level.” Yet it lavishes staff time on giant suburban footprints like Wal-Mart which are automobile dependent, land-consumptive, and environmentally backwards. If the town wants to develop “cool” land use policies, they are chosing very “hot” footprints like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. Readers are urged to email Mayor Guy at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Guy, For a “cool city,” your little community is welcoming some very environmentally ‘hot’ big box stores. A Wal-Mart supercenter is totally incompatible with the size and character of Surf City. Towns with less than 2,000 people have no need for giant superstores. This is low value development which transfers most of its sales from existing merchants already in the trade area. Don’t be fooled by all the talk about “green” buildings. This huge, single-floor building is environmentally unsustainable — and what’s inside largely is imported from China. A Wal-Mart across from Lowe’s makes no sense economically or environmentally. Unless you are careful about new development, you will have to change your town motto to ‘big enough to be competitive, big enough to be unhappy.’ And its time to make Wal-Mart present its plans in public — instead of private meetings with your planning department. Invite your friends from the Sierra Club to join the action — and see how ‘cool’ they think a Wal-Mart supercenter would be.”